How Reader’s Digest, Parade, and Popular Mechanics Can Make You a More Successful Copywriter

After going through the headline intensive and week #1 of this program, I'm starting to appreciate the structure that is hidden beneath the sales letter.
Mark B. COS Member

Every time you pick up a magazine or newspaper, you have in front of you a short course on writing winning headlines. Let me tell you why.

Take a look at this classic ad from copywriting master Gene Schwartz:

Burn Disease
Out of Your Body

Lying flat on your back, using
nothing more than the palm of your hand!

Now, if you were reading Reader’s Digest or Parade or Popular Mechanics, wouldn’t that headline stop you in your tracks?

These types of ads – direct response space ads – are those you see in newspapers and magazines. They’re seldom more than one page long. Usually a lot shorter: half a page and even smaller. And if they’re done right, they’re topped with a bold headline you cannot resist.

Sure, all headlines have to attract attention. But the headline in a space ad has a special challenge.

The headline doesn’t simply have to attract your prospect’s attention. It has to do so while your prospect is busily turning pages looking for that one article that caught his attention on the cover. Or for the article he read about in the table of contents that he’s sure will solve his health problems.

Another way to look at it: the last thing your prospect wants to do when he’s reading the magazine is read an ad. Your headline’s job: make it his highest priority.

Microsurgery with words

Let’s break down Schwartz’s headline to see how he does it.

The first six words – “Burn Disease Out of Your Body” – directly state a benefit. They’re arresting for another reason, too. They tingle with danger. “Burn?” he thinks, “Could this be good? ‘Burn’ sounds scary. But getting rid of disease? Hmm, might be interesting.”

Arresting, yes. But if Schwartz stopped the headline right there, the prospect’s concerns might keep him from reading on. So Schwarz doesn’t leave the reader with those misgivings.

“Lying flat on your back, using nothing more than the palm of your hand!”

Now, that doesn’t sound scary at all. It’s something the prospect can easily do. And the very first word in the headline – “Burn” – instead of sounding dangerous, now sounds final.

Here are a few more classic, compelling space ad headlines:

The INSULT That Made a Man Out of “Mac”

(Joe Sugarman’s classic Charles Atlas ad)

The Lazy Man’s Way to Riches

‘Most People Are Too Busy Earning a Living to Make Any Money’
(Joe Karbo)


(Victor Schwab)


(Howard Gossage’s classic ad for the Sierra Club got 3,000 new members
and stopped construction of a hydroelectric dam project)

I can’t go into the details of why these are powerful headlines here. There’s not enough room, and that’s not what you’re here for.

What I will do is tell you a simple strategy for learning from effective headlines in your everyday life. One that costs you nothing.

7-step strategy to greatness

Writing space ads distills everything you need to know about writing strong copy down into its purest essentials.

That’s why studying space ad headlines benefits you even if writing space ads is the last thing you’re interested in.

Here’s the strategy. Every time you pick up a newspaper or magazine, have a pad of paper, small Post-It® notes, and a pen nearby. Here’s the crucial part: turn off your copywriter switch. Read for enjoyment. Do your best not to concentrate on anything but reading the periodical.

I know this is a lot like telling you not to think about an elephant in striped pajamas. With practice, though, you’ll forget you’re a copywriter and turn back into a reader.

As you’re reading, if an ad catches your attention for any reason, stick a Post-It® on it and go on. That is, go on unless the ad grabbed you enough to stop you from reading the periodical and made you read the ad instead.

In that case, mark it with the Post-It® and read as much of the ad as the copy compels you to. If the lead and body copy aren’t strong, that’s okay. You’re trolling for compelling headlines.

When you’re all finished reading, go back to the ads that caught your full attention and write down the headline in your notepad. Then ask yourself these questions and write down the answers:

  1. What word or words caught my attention first?
  2. What primary emotion did this headline touch in me?
  3. What primary benefit did this headline promise me?
  4. Did I have any misgivings when I first read it?
  5. How did the copywriter overcome those misgivings?

The next step in this strategy is to go back to the headlines that caught your attention but that didn’t compel you to read on. Answer this question:

  1. Why did this catch my attention at first but fail to compel me to read on?

Why is this step important? I’m a staunch believer that everyone learns by modeling greatness. But we also learn by seeing examples that aren’t as strong and analyzing why they fell short.

Your final step is crucial and will make all the difference in using this strategy effectively.

  1. Rewrite these almost good headlines so they would compel you to read on.

Studying space ads carefully will hone your copywriting skills. It will push you closer to becoming an A-level copywriter even if you don’t plan on writing space ads (though I can’t image why you’d ignore this lucrative career path).

Give it a try and see if it helps boost your career the way it did mine.


Will Newman will be at this year’s FastTrack to Success Copywriting Bootcamp and Job Fair for his 8th consecutive year.

He’ll be talking about his two favorite copywriting subjects: 'your best friend in copywriting' and 'how to write powerful headlines.'

Will loves to meet new copywriters, so be sure to introduce yourself to him when you see him. He’s always happy to answer questions and share the lessons he’s learned.

Click here to reserve your spot.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »

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Published: June 27, 2011

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